Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance:
Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual
A Book by Iris J. Stewart

The Sound

Issue No. 210, February 2002
A West Coast Newsletter Serving All Sufi Orders and Murids
Review by Batina Smeder

The very cosmos dances; the atoms swirl around the nucleus. So we shouldn't be surprised when author Iris J. Stewart, in her new book, "Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual, posits that in the beginning, even before the Word, was the dance, and with the dance, the women.

Stewart traces her own involvement with Sacred Movement to a first belly dance class where, as a feminist, she had to deal with a dichotomy, asking, "How did this dance, which moved women's bodies so powerfully and sensually, come from a part of the world where women have been so long under public repression and segregation?" She also wondered what was implicit in the snake and sinuous movements in this dance. These questions took her on a journey where she traced the serpent to the goddess and then the goddess back to the dance.

Earlier on, her feminism had turned her from the male dominated church, but personal crises had brought her back to spirituality, and dance became part of her method of healing. In delving into dance, she discovered that it was the most elemental spiritual expression.

Similarly to archeologist Marija Gimbutas, Stewart had to b ring fresh eyes to and see between the words of a lot of patrifocal research that played down the significance of women's sacred movement as being solely about "babies and fertility." Tracing the roots of dance as worship back to pre-history, she reaffirms that from earliest times it was a sacred, meaningful activity, not a by-the-way adjunct to culture. She points out that many of our derogatory terms, such as hussy, lewd, and obscene possibly have their roots in dance descriptives. Much of her documentation is in the form of rich illustration, art, and sculpture, where the goddess and sacred dance are depicted and celebrated.

To dance, Stewart says, is to let the body express itself rhythmically, and sacred dance gets us in touch with the flow of graced. Movement, she states, is the first language. When someone asked Anna Pavlova what a dance meant, she responded, "If I could have said it, I wouldn't have had to dance it!"

In sacred dance, the body gives architecture to the emotions of reverence through circling, whirling, and the seemingly inexhaustible variation on what can be done in space with fluid form. Dance didn't begin as a spectator sport. The goddess was a dancer and taught the dance, especially through her priestesses.

Stewart begins with the Cretan cult of the goddess that was strong enough to survive until the fifth century BC, and suggests that the Eleusinian and other schools communicated their mysteries through the dance.

She goes through the ancient cultures one by one, locating the central dancer within: from Isis (Egypt) to Ishtar (Babylon), Parvati (India) to Tara and Quan Yin (Buddhist countries), Hi'iaka (Pele's sister), the Daughters of Jerusalem, and even suggests that Mary and the priestesses of the temper were the mistresses of the dance. It has even depicted in art that our very souls perhaps dance their way into heaven.

And then there is the backlash, the taboo against dancing: that anything so empowering, that so readily leads to ecstasy and communion with the divine, will at some moment be condemned by powers that be (read men), especially when inculcated into women's culture. Stewart discusses the various circumstances when dance was banned or, at minimum, fell into disfavor, up to and including modern-day America.

The cross-cultural garments of dance, the girdle, the veil, are explored; symbolic emblems, the musical accoutrements, cymbals, the drum, are all given their due.
Stewart then brings us into modern dance, beginning shortly after the turn of the last century, in the 1920s and '30s, with the avant garde innovations of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and the god-mother of sacred dance, and our own Dances of Universal Peace, Ruth St. Denis. She describes the entire range of dance: improv / sacred, the moon dance, the sacred circle, the labyrinth, the serpent dance, the lamentation dance, the drum dance, the ecstatic / transcendental dance, the dance of the elements and the mirror dance.

Throughout, she invites the reader to put down the book and participate, with instructions on doing many of these dances. For both the neophyte to dance or someone wishing in-depth information, Stewart's exhaustively-researched and documented tome is a good resource and reference.

The Sound
c/o Golden Gate Sufi Circle
P.O. Box 559, Sebastopol, CA 95473

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